Friday, April 4, 2008

To Prune or Not to Prune

I prune. Its as meditative as weeding, but more of an art. For those not interested or just prone to the wild, your roses don't need pruning. Its about us after all and they would be just fine without us (yet with more dead canes). I have three types of roses in my garden. A climber, a hedge rose, and something else I yanked out of my grandma's garden just before she sold her house. I prune them all, but each has its own program.

The climber:

I want the climber, Rosa New Dawn, to stay less than 8 feet tall, stay anchored to a trellis, and bloom as much as possible. In late March I cut out canes that interfere with this plan. I gently bend the larger canes, getting them as close to horizontal as possible without stressing it. Then I tie the cane to the trellis. I prune out perpendicular (to the trellis) canes that extend too far out because they may poke me in the eye or something. I also prune canes that are poking the wall behind the trellis. The result is a loosely espalier-like rose bush. Those horizontal canes will deliver vertical flowering branches. The more horizontal (really, diagonal) canes the climber has, the more flowers it tends to produce.

The hedge rose:

These things are meant to be rose-flowering fences. You could probably shear Rosa Knockout and do it no harm. I like to selectively prune my hedge rose for shape (I have only one). I prune out dead twigs and thin branches where I think the shrub is too dense. I also trim the sides of the shrub because I do not want it to encroach on neighboring perennials.

The ? rose (probably old garden rose, tea perhaps?):

This is one with wonderfully scented, double flowers appearing in June and again as the flowering stems are pruned. This bush has one strong cane, about 5/8-inch thick and a few smaller canes and twigs shooting off it. I prune the spindly twigs out and then cut the remaining canes down to roughly pencil thickness near outward facing leaf buds (bud eyes). Once 4 feet tall, its now less than 3 feet. This one blooms after each pruning of flowering stems during the growing season.

Rose pruning tips:

  • I like to prune in late March, just as the temps are warming above freezing at night. Its a good time to do it because there are no leaves to block your view of the canes and the new leaf buds (bud eyes) are becoming swollen and visible.
  • Prune out dead wood. If you suspect disease, clean your pruners with bleach before moving onto other rose bushes.
  • Prune out last year's rose hips.
  • Use a by-pass pruner. I use a Felco #2 and have had it for 15 years. The blade is removable and sharpenable. Keep it sharp for the cleanest cuts.
  • Make your cut in one pass. If it takes more, your pruner's blade is too dull or the cane is too thick and woody. If its too thick, use a large by-pass pruner called a lopper.
  • I cut the cane about 1/4 inch above the desired leaf bud, slicing parallel to the direction of the leaf bud (bud eye). See diagram below.
  • My grandmother swears by sprinkling Epsom Salts around the roses in Spring. Its also known as Magnesium Sulfate. I don't treat my roses to these bath salts, but hey-she's been gardening for 70 years.
  • Wear leather gloves if you don't like thorns pricking your hands.

Grandma's rose cane

Climber New Dawn cane


  1. Thanks for the photo, I needed that to really visualize the concept.

  2. Great post and very helpful...I have a 1 year old climber and 3 brand new bareroot roses in my wannabe cottage garden aka my backyard. I have also 2 Knockout rose bushes that I got last year and bloomed wonderfully, and should be pruned as they are different heights and all over the place. I am going to use them as the guinea pigs for my new pruning skills, even though everyone told me that with Knockouts you can just use a hedge clipper. I refuse to believe that.


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